Re-launching Poetics of Resistance: On Porous and Relational Autonomy
Cornelia Gräbner, Lancaster University
The network ‘Poetics of Resistance’ is back. After organizing symposia in 2007 and 2008 in Leeds and Santiago de Compostela, and after two collective publications in 2010 and 2011, we dispersed and found each other in smaller projects on specific elements of the Poetics of Resistance, such as poetry in public spaces and non-lyrical poetry. In spring 2015 we resurfaced at the Annual Conference of the Society for Latin American Studies in Aberdeen with a panel on the Poetics of Resistance and Autonomy, organized by David M.J. Wood and myself. We are now initiating a new phase of regular and sustained activity. As part of my intellectual contribution to this new beginning, I will here suggest a few inroads to a sharpened theoretical engagement with a concept we left undertheorized when we dispersed: ‘autonomy’.
‘Autonomy’ was one of the key themes that ran throughout most articles included in the 2010 special issue ‘Poetics of Resistance’, published by Cosmos and History and edited by David M.J. Wood and myself. In the ‘Introduction’ we coined the term ‘porous autonomy’ because we found that most authors treated contexts such as academia or the art world as part of neoliberal hegemony. Since neoliberalism co-opts almost every resistant articulation, we suggested that ‘spaces of resistance can … be thought of as being lodged within hegemony’, and that ‘the social and political configurations with which artists interact, and the creative process itself, are not necessarily ‘pure’ of the hegemonic ideological structures that they resist, and therefore ‘outside ideology.’
The networks’ thinking on the relationship between the work of art and social movements we also conceptualized through this term: ‘porous autonomy is developed through a relationality between the work of art that maintains its autonomy, and the social movements or political groups that articulate similar demands on a political level. The issue here is … to what extent a committed work of art or aesthetic practice maintains its critical distance from the social movements with which it sympathizes while at the same time productively interacting with them from a critical perspective.’ After years of working on committed writing and on tact and the haptic, of learning from non-academic epistemologies, of life experience, I’m now struck firstly by our omission of critique, and secondly by the association of the ‘critical’ with ‘distance’. Sure, critique needs space – but I would now think of ‘space’ as a shared space in which different agents interact through critique, and where critique is one of the ways in which these agents work with closeness, encounter, touch, and breathing space.
Finally, we suggested that ‘porous autonomy … becomes a very useful position of resistance in situations in which aesthetics and aesthetic communities become the carriers of political demands in the absence of carriers of real political power.’ We were referring to situations where the State had proved ineffective, or where political parties no longer functioned as carriers of oppositional and contestatory power. We did not make explicit what we knew: that there were carriers of real political power such as neoliberalizing States, corporations and the global apparatus that supports them. While they ravage spaces and people inside and outside the academy, they were – and still are – making the most of our openness, conceptualized as porosity.
Porosity, Relationality, Autonomy
And now, six years later? The openness we had envisaged for critique has been appropriated into the neoliberal porosity of academia, which resembles the porosity of borders between neoliberal nation States: whatever creates value (money, prestige, fame, an appearance of morality,…) may travel; everything and everybody else is turned away, ignored, interned, expulsed, or left to drown. Life within the reduced and constrained area enclosed by the border has become a negotiation of regularly and (seemingly) arbitrarily tightening and loosening rules, expectations and frameworks. Sure, there are temporary autonomous zones within academe. Sure, if we don’t lose focus in spite of the marking, the meetings, the grant applications, emotional exhaustion and intellectual attrition, we can make the most of them before they are co-opted or absorbed quickly or gradually, at a pace and in ways not always obvious, or easy to track. Whether it is desirable or coherent for us to continuously move the poetics of resistance from one such cycle into the next, is an ethical and a strategic question. Until we answer it, I’m limited to tactical considerations on how we can maintain the possibilities of resistant encounters without entrenching ourselves, walling ourselves in, or shutting down.
The concept of relational autonomy – as distinct to porous autonomy – has been helpful in thinking through these challenges, and I will share some thoughts with reference to some of the points made by Andrea C. Westlund in her article ‘Rethinking Relational Autonomy’(2009). Relational autonomy is rooted in feminist thought, and it provides an alternative to traditional notions of autonomy – tied in with sovereignty – by conceptualizing relationality as constitutive of autonomy. For Westlund, relationality is constituted by several elements: ‘Autonomy in choice and action – and hence, derivatively, in its other senses – relies (at least in part) on the disposition to hold oneself answerable to external critical perspectives on one’s action-guiding commitments. … Autonomy, on this view, requires an irreducibly dialogical form of reflectiveness and responsiveness to others.’ (28) When the agent’s reflective capacities are constrained, her commitments and actions act out ‘essentially monological functions such as endorsing or rejecting lower-order attitudes from elsewhere within her own hierarchy of attitudes, … .’ (33)
A challenge to the commitments or actions of an autonomous agent – and I understand ‘critique’ as a non-aggressive challenge – must meet two conditions in order to be legitimate: it must be ‘relationally situated’ (ie.embedded within what Westlund describes as a sense-imparting relationship), and it must be context-sensitive (ie. open to a range of responses): ‘Autonomous agents will, in one way or another, manifest responsiveness to justificatory challenges, and their disposition to do so is partly constitutive of their status as self-governing. But they can manifest such responsiveness even while disvaluing and refusing to engage in certain practices, including practices in which they are pressed to cite their reasons in the face of direct questioning.’ (40)
I want to take elements of Westlund’s argument as springboards to think about the first two aspects of autonomy that Dave and I had identified in our 2010 Introduction: the relationship between critique and the academy, and – slightly shifting our focus – the relationship between the institutionalized thinker and her interlocutors outside the academy. My reflections refer to the conditions for critique, rather than the finished art work or work of critique. This is because if, as we put it in the ‘About Us’ of the network, critique nurtures resistances of others and increases literacies of resistance, then I cannot sequentially place the terms of my critique before building a relationship with my interlocutors.
Through the Poetics of Resistance I can build sense-imparting relationships with roughly three groupings of people by way of responding to their work or by using academia to create shared spaces: with artists, community groups and social movements who appeal to public awareness and visibility; with groupings who form part of autonomous publics; and with groupings who share with those who practice the Poetics of Resistance a critical relationship to the normative public.
In the first case, a sense-imparting relationship exists when academics serve, or interact with, the public interest. Collaborations activate these relationships, and ethics regulations, Social Impact and Knowledge Exchange validate and regulate them within the frameworks provided by the institutions involved. Challenges and responses to them will be expressed in a way that is acceptable to normative public discourse and will probably be mindful of its hierarchical structures.
In the second case a sense-imparting relationship on the terrain or on the terms of academia is not usually possible because these groupings consider academia as linked to conservative elitism, a hostile normative public, neoliberal capitalism and/or authoritarian State power. Recognition or acceptance by the normative public is of no or little interest to them. A tenuous sense-imparting relationship may be possible if I personally am at all times critically self-aware about the implications of my role as an academic and respect their autonomy by responding to (not evaluate, assess or judge) material that they themselves have released into the public domain. They will respond on their own terms and when and if they consider it appropriate, often indirectly, in forms as varied as critical engagement, irony, or strategic mockery or offense.
For the third grouping – for example, journalists, some media activists, committed writers or artists – the type of critical analysis carried out within the academy can be useful and important. A range of sense-imparting relationships are possible if all parties involved are critically self-aware at all times, if the relationship is on equal terms and based on trust, and if each of the partners can let go of it for good reasons. The wide range of possible responses often include or imply a shared critique of normative discourses, and the construction of alternative ones. The Poetics of Resistance can become one of the building blocks of all sorts of relationships, including alliances, and of shared processes and projects.
The crux of the matter lies in my insistence on the ‘self-aware’ and the ‘self-reflective’ which refer, of course, to the role of the academic. Our notion of porosity was meant to refer to conditions under which someone with a dialogical disposition has the space to act on it. Many of us are now in a situation where the academic is turning into a functionary in the service of the neoliberal forces that have channelled themselves into the institutions. Those of us with an open disposition are useful in that we may be able to mine areas of potential profit which are foreclosed to those without that disposition; but this means that our disposition has been converted into a function. This has been done through the combination of over-regulation and arbitrariness in the Research Excellence Framework, which defines what type of outputs are acceptable and which creates a fixation not only on producing ‘outcomes’ and ‘outputs’, but on turning everything into an ‘outcome’ or an ‘output.’ Policies on Social Impact and Knowledge Exchange force relationships and interactions into compliance with assessment frameworks which are in turn linked to authoritarian power structures and capitalist ideology. So-called ethics regulations impose the terms of the institution on the ways in which I speak with others and create something shared with them, no matter whether these terms are appropriate to the context. The endorsement of open access to intellectual property circumvents the debate over whether the intellectual is a commons, or property. Thus, ideology and policies within academia co-opt and instrumentalize my relational disposition towards others, while they constrain the relationality I can exercise within academia by normativizing and hierarchizing formerly sense-imparting relationships and by turning my relational disposition into the function of producing ‘academic currency’.
If I conceptualized my autonomy in traditional masculinist notions tied to sovereignty, I could now claim my ‘quiet corner’ and ‘save myself’ (to paraphrase Mario Benedetti) by handing over my Self. Relationality then turns into an optional add-on to expertism; moreover, the type of relationality is up to the sovereign. Many colleagues choose this option, and many non-academics appreciate the combination of prestigious credibility, personal glamour and gestures of rebelliousness that come with it. But this is not an option if the Poetics of Resistance entail a commitment to the anti-patriarchal. Moreover, if the Poetics of Resistance have anything to do with resisting – as distinct to writing about other people’s resistances – then resigning the relationality of my autonomy constitutes, on the political level, a deference to all the equivalents of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no alternative’, and my resignation turns me into a deferential agent (Westlund): ‘By “deeply deferential agents” I mean those who endorse their deference but have no basis for doing so that is not itself deferential. Pressed to explain why they always defer, such agents simply persist in referring their interlocutors to the perspectives of those to whom they defer.’ (Westlund 2009: 32) If I chose this option I would turn the Poetics of Resistance into a pseudo-critique that paints the status quo a pseudo-democratic colour and endorses negativity as gesture – to establish a connection back to Adorno, whom we once moved away from.
A Compromised Position
We are re-launching the network Poetics of Resistance from a compromised position. From my part I’d suggest that there are three challenges for us to meet immediately: Firstly, our critique has to be be more committed and more incisive; secondly, we have to be critically self-aware about which types of relationships we maintain with whom, and for which reasons, and our relationships can be dialogical but must never, ever, be porous; thirdly, in our historical moment the integrity of our critique is tied in with our commitment to principles and relationships on equal footing. To do this, I suggest that we move from porous autonomy to relational autonomy. Right now, the attempt to mobilize institutional porosity locks us into what I once called the SafeSpace. Relational autonomy maintains a bit of breathing space and opens up a tiny chance to help build that durable encounter that someone once located ‘beyond resistance.’